There has literally never been a day of my life when STAR TREK in some form did not exist. The original television series beat me to existence by a couple of years; I was 11 years old when the first film came out. And what I always loved about the ideas behind STAR TREK was that it was a place on network television where science fiction was taken seriously, even when it got silly or opted for action over philosophy. It was that rare ground where pop culture met deep thinking, and even as a pre-teen, I understood that ideas were at work here, even if I didn't always fully comprehend the deeper meanings.
And the plain, wonderful truth is that nothing can ever take that away from me. So even though the films were hit and miss, and the franchise expanded on television to other heroes and villains and versions of our future. But none of it diluted my love for what moved me the most about being exposed again and again to the series and early movies. I know it inside out, have discussed and debated it to exhaustion, and have changed my mind dozens of times about my favorite characters, episodes, villains and conceits.
Then here comes this young upstart J.J. Abrams and his team of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, taking what Gene Roddenberry created and mixing it all up by throwing off timelines and such, and daring to show us in two movies where life began for the classic Enterprise crew. In a way, they could stop making STAR TREK movies with INTO DARKNESS, because the film literally ends where the original series began. I'm sure more are coming, but to simply end here would be bordering on graceful.
A lot happens in INTO DARKNESS, some I knew going in, some I anticipated, some that surprised me. Some of the film's best moments come courtesy of new characters (or at least new actors playing familiar characters). Peter Weller's booming Admiral Marcus is a great bloated (ego, not body) reminder of all that has gone wrong with Starfleet; right off the bat, he asks Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the Enterprise crew to transport torpedoes to the Klingon home planet, where the terrorist John Harrison (the magnificent Benedict Cumberbatch) has fled after destroying the Starfleet Archives in London, killing hundreds. At this point in history, Starfleet and the Klingons are not at war yet, but that's about to change.
But most importantly, carrying such weapons for purposes of an attack and risking war goes squarely against the Prime Directive that guides Starfleet as an explorative organization. But Marcus doesn't seem to care and gives the order to use the torpedoes as a means of outright killing Harrison, without discussion. And we begin to realize that Abrams and crew are planning something of a slash-and-burn approach to this storyline. Starfleet must be torn down in order to save it, much like the filmmakers did with the last film.
I can't bring myself to spoil for the 2 percent of you who don't know anything about who John Harrison really is. I don't think a single person in the audience I saw this film with seemed surprised by that poorly handled reveal; more people reacted at the sight of a tribble in Dr. McCoy's (Karl Urban) lab. But it really doesn't matter, since Cumberbach makes the character, borrowing very little from previous incarnations of... this dude. Most importantly, this might be the single most sympathetic version of this character we've ever seen. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; and when Harrison and Kirk are actually forced to join forces, the results are almost too manly to comprehend.
You see, as much as I admire (borderline worship) the original series, I love it when someone tries to shake things up a bit by being smart while changing things up. INTO DARKNESS is not a remake of a particular movie or episode, although some may mistake it as such. It's a great setup for a five-year mission with characters we still care about and miss. Speaking of missing characters, the cast has grown so much in this second reboot film that some of the crew's screentime suffers (poor Chekov, played by Anton Yelchin) or their characterizations are misdirected. Zoe Saldana's Uhura, such a great character in the first film, is reduced to being an insecure girlfriend and affirmation junkie for a great deal of INTO DARKNESS.
Characters that get a sizable boost include Simon Pegg's Scotty, who despite quitting the Enterprise crew at the beginning of the film, gets in some major story developments handed to him in the third act. John Cho's Sulu remains one of my favorite players, and a wonderful moment where he sits in the captain's chair for the first time is a highlight of the film. Also new to the lineup is Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), the new science officer and daughter of the admiral, whose presence on the Enterprise is suspect but critical when things get rough.
As much as I love STAR TREK for its emphasis on ideas, INTO DARKNESS is an all out adventure and action tale, a realm where Abrams feels most comfortable (he's going to be just fine directing the next STAR WARS movie, as long as the script is solid). But that's not to say the film is without its thoughtful moments. Its plot points about the nature of terrorism, preemptive strikes, militarizing things that were meant for a peaceful mission, it's clear that the guiding forces behind this film are taking a look at America and the world and considering whether we'll ever be able to escape our nature. Then again, Holy Shit there's a starship that is three times as big as the Enterprise, built for nothing but kicking ass!
Are there plot holes? A few. Welcome to movies. Are they detrimental to the entire support structure of INTO DARKNESS? Absolutely not. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that compared to the time-jumping nature of the first Abrams STAR TREK, this new film holds together with a lot less chewing gum and duct tape. Am I saying that just because I hold my memories of the original series so firmly in my heart that I can't hate Abrams & Co.'s take on these characters and events? Of course not. A shit movie is a shit movie; but INTO DARKNESS simply isn't the rage-inspiring production that I'm sure many will claim it is. I believe the heart and soul of what the series was is still present. The painting is the same; it's just the frame that's be switched out--or maybe it's the other way around.
I complain often about how often bigger movies completely avoid any level of character development—and granted, I realize that any STAR TREK movie has a history that helps in that regard—but there's a genuine effort to grow the established characters (most of them) and give us fleshed-out versions of the new ones. It doesn't always work, but I appreciated the effort. That, along with some fantastic action sequences, make STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS a damn-near perfect summertime movie and a great continuation of this revised universe.